...And All the Stars a Stage

...And All the Stars a Stage

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Part I - The Beginning

Chapter 1: Exile
(Hythoth village, Rodia, Tyrius system)

Later, Tans could never remember exactly what it was that woke him. Perhaps it was Khesta's cries. Perhaps it was the screams from outside. Or, perhaps it was the unmistakable sounds of blaster fire and combat.

Then again, perhaps it isn't important. Instead, maybe all that matters is that he awakened suddenly from a peaceful sleep; the last he would have for many cycles.

"Tans! What is it!" gasped Khyla, bolting upright in bed beside him.
"Clan raid." said Tans grimly, his hand automatically going to her shoulder. It was dark, well before dawn, but the room was being illuminated by flickers of weapons fire from somewhere outside. The bright flash and deafening roar of a thermal detonator erupted from somewhere nearby, prompting another round of screams.
"Go get Khesta!" he said, rolling out of bed. He turned, seeing his mate still staring in shock out the window. "Go!" he said again. She started, then leapt to her feet and ran past him.

As she left, Tans quickly moved to the armoire and pulled his blaster rifle from the top shelf. Seldom used but well maintained, it had been a gift to him from his father; an accomplished bounty hunter who had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. He had been alternately dismayed and enraged when Tans met Khyla, a dancer in the local theatre, and followed her back to her village; forsaking the wars and gladiatorial games prized by most Rodians for drama, theatre and the slitherhorn and fanfar. He had not even acknowledged Tans' attempts at communication when Khesta was born.

Tans ignored the rush of memories triggered by the rifle and ran to the main room. Khyla was trying to comfort Khesta in her room and he motioned for them to stay there as a pounding started at the front door, followed almost immediately by an ominous metallic clink. He threw himself to the floor behind a table as the thermal detonator exploded, showering the room with debris.

Tans rolled into a kneeling position in time to meet the first raider through the door with a blast from his rifle, dropping him in the doorway. Another raider looked in but ducked back out of the way of another burst of fire. Hopping to his feet, Tans advanced on the doorway.

His advance was stopped by the sound of shattering glass and more screams from Khesta. He spun back, catching just moments too late another blur of movement in the doorway. He heard another blaster fire and burning pain shot through his shoulder and arm, knocking the blaster from his grip and him to the ground. He rolled onto his back in an attempt to regain his feet but was stopped abruptly with a boot on his chest and he found himself staring into the muzzle of a hand flamer. Several more intruders entered the house and two more came from Khesta's room, dragging Khyla and Khesta with them.

"Don't kill them!" said another intruder, striding into the room. "The Grand Protector doesn't want to give them the honor of a glorious death." The intruder stopped, looking down at Tans as he lay on the floor.
"Hi Tans. Long time no see."
Tans blinked at him in confusion for some seconds then recognition dawned. "Drebor? What is this? What the hezmana is going on!"

Drebor laughed and, picking up the blaster Tans had dropped, knelt beside him on the floor. "Same old Tans." he said, shaking his head. "You always were the slow one. Let's just say that the Great Protector has had enough of the pacifistic tendencies of this village." Somehow he made the word " pacifistic" sound like a curse. "You haven't had a great hunt in months, the last death in your Arena was almost a cycle ago and we've heard that you have even accepted the outcasts from some of the other clans!"

"We've been too busy to schedule a hunt!" objected Tans. "And a loser in an Arena combat can learn from their failure and...". His words were cut off as Drebor grabbed his snout and painfully twisted his head around to face him.
"Through conflict we gain strength! Through strength we survive!" said Drebor, reciting the mantra that every Rodian learned at an early age. "Eliminating the weak strengthens us all. Protect them and you hurt all of us." He stood up.

"But, the Great Protector is merciful." he said with a smirk. "None of you will be killed, since there would be no honor or glory in your deaths. Instead, all of you are to be banished from Rodia. You return only on pain of death."

Drebor turned to the other raiders and gestured towards Khesta. "Take her and put her with the others." One of his followers moved forward and, grabbing her arms, began to drag her towards the door.

"Mommy! Daddy!" screamed Khesta. Tans again attempted to regain his feet but was again slammed to the floor by the booted foot of the figure standing over him. Khyla struggled as well but was unable to break the grip of the two Rodians holding her.
"What about this one?" one of them asked.

Drebor looked from Khyla to Tans, then back. "Oh, give her a party before you take her to the starport. Something to remember Rodia by." One of the Rodians grinned and the two started to drag the screaming Khyla towards the back of the house.

Tans felt his frills standing on end and twisted to face Drebor. "You frelling bastard!" he shouted. "You'll never get away with this."

"Oh, but I have." said Drebor, coming to stand over him again. "I already have. You see? Strength always wins." He looked towards the back of the house, then back down at Tans.
"Besides," he said "we're doing her a favor. We can give her much stronger offspring than you ever could."

There was another ragged scream from Khyla and, with a wordless cry, Tans launched himself from the floor, toppling the raider who had been holding him. He spun to face Drebor, only to see him swinging his father's blaster towards him like a club.

There was a flash of pain, and then everything faded to black.

...

He awoke to find himself lying on a cold, metal floor; pain in his head, shoulder and side. He felt his forehead and his hand came away sticky with blood. With a groan he pushed himself into a sitting position.

He found himself in a cramped, metal space lit only by a few feeble light panels in the ceiling and half filled with shipping containers. A handful of Rodians, several of whom he recognized from his village, sat or lay among them.

Khyla?" he asked, looking around. "Khesta?" Receiving no reply, he tried again more loudly. "Khyla! Khesta!"

"They aren't here." came a soft voice from a corner. "They aren't here." Looking, he saw another villager curled into a small space between a crate and the wall; frills flat against her head and knees hugged to her chest. He recognized her as one of the other entertainers from the theatre where he and Khyla performed.

"What happened? Where are they?"
"I saw Khesta." she said, faintly. "She was with some other children all being put on another ship." Tans' stomach knotted. "And Khyla?"
The woman shook her head. "I don't know. Maybe they weren't..." she paused, tears appearing in her eyes. "Maybe they weren't finished with her yet!"

The other Rodian broke down into tears. Tans reached out a hand to try and comfort her but she shrank away from him with a frightened whimper. Tans paused for a moment then realization hit, his stomach knotting even further. Lurching to another crate, he leaned against it and vomited messily. A few of the others looked towards him with either pity or disgust but most seemed to be so far in shock that they barely noticed what was happening.

"I'll find them." he said when it was over, gasping for breath. "I'll find them. I'll find what other ships they used and..."
"Don't count on it." interrupted a quiet voice from the semi-darkness. "You think these freighter captains are carrying us away out of the kindness of their hearts? Or, that maybe this is what passes for passenger accommodations these days?" The Rodian gave a short laugh. "We're being met by some Genoshan slavers. We'll be mining spice on Kessel for what's left of our lives."
"If we're lucky." said someone else bitterly.

Tans froze for a moment then staggered back against the bulkhead as the impact of all that had happened sank in on him. He felt a brief surge of acceleration and a faint shudder run though the ship and realized that they had just made the jump to lightspeed. Rodia, his home, his family, were now out of reach behind him. Strength left him and he allowed himself to slide down the bulkhead until he was sitting on the floor. Leaning his head back against the metal wall behind him, he closed his eyes in an attempt to hide his own tears.

Chapter 2: Enslavement
(Starport slave market, Dylol, Jandar system)

Dylol, the third planet of the Jandar system, is known for two things. The high quality of its atmospheric craft, produced by the native Dylina, and the towering Retana trees which dominate the forest that covers two-thirds of the planet's surface. The avian Dylina live among the branches of the trees but the citizens of first the Republic and later the Empire who dwelt there chose to make their homes inside the hollow trunks of the towering, natural skyscrapers, away from the heat, humidity and insects of the forest itself.

Of course, not everyone was so fortunate. Tans slapped at an insect and stared morosely through the bars of his cage at the brightly lit, leafy landscape beyond. He was stripped to the waist and wearing only a loincloth in an attempt to survive the heat. He had only been wearing his bedclothes when the raid occurred anyway and he had torn most of them into strips with which to bind the cut on his head and the blaster wound to his shoulder. He thought he had a cracked rib or two as well; apparently Drebor had gotten a few kicks in after he had been knocked unconscious.

He had been on Dylol for over two weeks. As expected, on arrival they were met by a group of slave traders who accepted them from the smirking ship captain with little fanfare. The males and females were immediately separated and the women taken away; he had not seen them since. The men had all been thrown into cages like his but they had been sold a few days later; only he had been left behind. Apparently the purchasers of the others had decided that with his wounds he would not survive long enough to make it worth their effort.

Tans turned his attention back to the object he was working on. He had found a small, hollow twig which had fallen from the massive tree overhead and had carefully cut holes in it with a rock from the floor of his cage. A folded leaf had made a serviceable reed and he now found himself in possession of a crude but useable fizz-like instrument. He tentatively blew a few notes on his impromtu fizz then quickly ran through a short tune. He smiled.

"Not bad." he thought to himself. "Even Khyla would be impressed with this one."

At the thought of his mate his smile faded. He still woke every night hearing the screams of his wife and daughter. Sometimes his own screams joined theirs; his imagination providing image after image of the atrocities they could be suffering. He had started work on his small creation in an attempt to give himself a distraction; something else for his mind to work on. Even that had failed.

Tears blurred his vision. As a child, Tans remembered being enthralled by the action and adventure programs on the holovid. In them, the hero was always finding himself in a situation like the one he was now in yet they were always able to either free themselves through strength and ingenuity. Or, they would be rescued at the last moment by the arrival of the Jedi, swooping over the hill on their white speederbikes.

Tans gave a bitter laugh. Reality was so very different. No one could free themselves from this position without the aid of the scriptwriter and a few stunt droids, and when the Republic fell the Jedi couldn't even save themselves. Besides, even the Republic tolerated slavery; as long as no laws were being broken the Empire wouldn't even care.

He slumped to the floor of his cage, head hung between his knees. "How can things possibly get worse." he thought.

"Bo chuda ko shaka! No do bah shing ka!" came a sudden loud voice from outside.

Tans looked up. "Well." he thought bitterly. "That's how."

Reclining on a floater platform before the cage was a Hutt. The platform was being carried by four humans and Tans noted distractedly that from the exertion they were showing the platform must not be compensating for much of the huge being's weight. A polished silver protocol droid stood beside the platform and several Gamorreans completed the Hutt's entourage.

Kess-Yi, the Genoshan slaver who ran this particular market, had come running from his office at the sound of the Hutt's voice.
"I am Q-XP4," said the droid in the polished, precise speech of his series as Kess-Yi came to a panting stop in front of him, "translator and spokesdroid for the Master Hutt Beldda. He requests that he be allowed to examine this Rodian."

Kess-Yi bowed obsequiously several times before turning to Tans. "Get up, you."

Tans groaned and slowly began to climb to his feet. Kess-Yi, apparently deciding that he wasn't moving fast enough, pulled a bantha prod from his belt and slammed it into Tans' side. Tans yelled, his body spasming from the current, and staggered upright. The small instrument he had created flew from his grasp and, bouncing once, rolled to a stop before the cage door. The Hutt watched it fall with mild interest.

Tans winced at the thought of Kess-Yi's reaction to the instrument but before the slavemaster could react the Hutt spoke again.
"Kodo bo ta ka? Kado bish ti ka?"

Q-XP4 looked at the Hutt then back to Tans. "Master Hutt Beldda asks if this item is a musical instrument." it translated for him in fluent Rodese. Tans nodded weakly.
The droid continued. "Master Hutt Beldda further asks if you can play this instrument."
Tans glanced from Kess-Yi to the Hutt then back to Q-XP4. "Yes." he told it.

The Hutt spoke again.
"Master Hutt Beldda requests that you play the instrument for him." said the droid. It paused a moment before continuing. "I suggest that you do so."

Tans glanced again at Kess-Yi then carefully picked up the instrument. Composing himself, he began to play. As he did, he carefully watched the Hutt and was surprised to see it partially close its eyes to better concentrate on the music. He was even more surprised when it began making small sounds, almost as if it was trying to hum along with the tune.
"Well, there's something you don't see every day." thought Tans. "A musically inclined Hutt."

When the song ended the Hutt sat with its eyes half-closed for several seconds before speaking again.
"Master Hutt Beldda says that this Rodian is acceptable." said Q-XP4 to Kess-Yi. "We will now adjourn to your office to discuss the particulars of this transaction."

Kess-Yi wrung his hands greedily several times then happily led the Hutt and his retinue towards his office. Tans suddenly found his limbs trembling and he leaned against the bars of the cage for support. His situation was changing again and he didn't know if it was for the better or the worse. He was almost afraid to find out.

A short time later all of them exited the office. The Hutt remained behind along with most of his followers while Kess-Yi and one of the Gamorreans came to Tans' cage. The Gamorrean watched impassively as the slaver opened the cage and Tans tentatively stepped out.
"Watch yourself." said Kess-Yi, nastily. "I've got a reputation to maintain and I don't want you ruining it." Tans shot him a dirty look.

The Gamorrean shoved Tans towards the waiting group. Tans winced then started walking forward.
"Good luck!" yelled Kess-Yi with obviously false sincerity. "You'll need it." he added, a bit more quietly.

As Tans came near the entire group set off; the Hutt on his platform leading the way, Tans walking behind him alongside Q-XP4 and the Gamorreans bringing up the rear. Despite the situation he was in, Tans felt himself relax a bit as they crossed a ramp to the next tree, leaving the slave market behind.

"Kado tish ka ti ko." said Beldda, turning around on his platform to look at him. "Tish da bo kah teh ko."
"Master Hutt Beldda wishes to know if you are able to play the slitherhorn." translated the droid.
"The slitherhorn?" asked Tans. "Yeah, of course. Sure." He shook his head, trying to clear it. "But it's not the only instrument I play. I mean, the slitherhorn is a beginner's instrument; even a novice entertainer can play it and..."

Beldda gave a sudden, sharp command and the procession came to an abrupt halt. The Gamorrean behind Tans grabbed him by the back of his neck and lifted him painfully off of his feet. He dangled there for a moment, frills standing on end, as the Hutt leaned towards him and said something in a careful, measured tone.
"Master Hutt Beldda wishes you to know that the slitherhorn is his favorite instrument." said Q-XP4 in expressionless Rodese. "Therefore, he informs you that it is now your favorite instrument as well. Do you understand?" Unable to speak, Tans painfully nodded agreement.

Beldda gestured and the Gamorrean dropped Tans to the ramp. Another gesture and the group started moving forward again. Not wanting to risk further wrath, Tans hurriedly regained his feet and resumed his place in the procession. As he did, the Hutt made a "hurr-hurr-hurr" sound deep in its throat; the recognizable sound of Hutt laughter.

"I do apologize for that incident." said Q-XP4 as he fell into step beside it. "But Master Hutt Beldda is very particular about his musical entertainment." The droid made what could only be a sigh. "That is why we were out searching for a new musician."
"New musician?" asked Tans, glancing towards the Hutt then back at the droid. "What happened to the old one?"
"I am not certain as to the cause of Master Hutt Beldda's displeasure." it said. "However, I do know that the result was very messy and I suspect very painful. Master Hutt Beldda did find it very entertaining however."

Tans paused for a half step but started moving again before the Gamorrean behind him could give him another shove.
"Oh yes." he thought. "Things can get much worse."

Chapter 3: Entertainment
(Cantina Beldda, Dylol, Jandar system)

After walking for what seemed like kilometers, Beldda finally led his entourage into one of the tree towers. Inside, Tans blinked as his eyes adjusted and looked around. They had arrived in a large, semicircular room which took up about half of this level of the tree. A curved bar occupied one corner and a raised stage the other. Tables were scattered about the room though at this early hour only a handful of them were occupied.

Beldda barked an order and his bearers carried him through the cantina to a large door in the back. Q-XP4 stopped Tans from following and led him instead to a small door beside the stage, one of the Gamorreans following. Through the door was a narrow stair which led to an upper level. There, Q-XP4 knocked once on a door then opened it and ushered Tans inside.

Tans found himself in a small apartment-like room. Three beds were pushed against the walls and a single table sat in the middle of the floor. The rest of the room's furnishings consisted of a pair of dressing tables and a surprising number of clothing armoires. Two Twi'lek females sat at the table and they looked up curiously as Tans and the droid entered the room.

"Pardon the intrusion, ladies." said Q-XP4 with a slight bow. "But I would like to introduce you to your new partner. This is Tans T'aafl of Rodia and he will be taking the position of musician with us."

"Wizard!" said the younger of the two women. She hopped out of her chair and trotted towards Tans, who guessed that her age couldn't be more than 15 cycles. "It'll be great to be able to dance to something besides that recorded dren." She stopped when she got close to Tans and wrinkled her nose. "Man, you smell like bantha poodoo!"

Tans looked at her with a mix of embarrassment and surprise. Q-XP4 made what could only have been an electronic snicker but looked at Tans with an expressionless face when he turned to glare at it.

"Veena, behave!" said the older woman. She seemed to be about twice the younger Twi'lek's age and walked towards Tans with the natural grace of a professional dancer. "I'm Tyanna," she said in introduction, "and this is Veena. Welcome." She looked him up and down. "And you do look like bantha dren."

Veena giggled and Tans felt his face flush, frills drooping. Q-XP4 interrupted further comments with a coughing sound. "Master Hutt Beldda will be expecting you to perform this evening so I would suggest that you prepare yourself. There is a fresher chamber to your left where you can wash yourself and we will have a medical droid see to your injuries. Appropriate clothing will be provided for you as will the instrument you will be expected to play. Is there anything else?"

"Yes." said Tans, looking around. "How long am I going to be here?"
"As long as Master Hutt Beldda wishes you to be." replied the droid. "Though I feel obligated to tell you that attempting to leave his service would undoubtedly be very painful and almost certainly fatal. Is that all?"

Tans nodded wordlessly and the droid excused itself and left. Turning back to the two Twi'leks he noticed that they were both still staring at him with a mixture of annoyance, disgust and curiosity.
"I'll.. um... I'll go clean up." he stammered, then quickly ducked into the privacy of the fresher cubicle, amused laughter at his back.

Despite the circumstances the shower was a relief and Tans allowed himself a few minutes of pleasure at the hot water and stood standing another moment or two even after the air jets had finished drying him off. His pleasure evaporated when he exited the stall and discovered that an MSE droid had apparently cleaned the cubicle while he was in the shower and that his scraps of clothing were gone. He emerged somewhat self-consciously from the cubicle and was greeted with a giggle of amusement at his embarrassment from Veena. At least, he hoped it was just his embarrassment she was laughing at.

Fortunately, Q-XP4 had returned with a set of clothing and a medical droid which tended to his wounds in a silent, unemotional manner. "Well, at least Beldda takes care of his entertainers." he commented as he dressed.
Tyanna shrugged. "Yeah? He probably takes care of his landspeeder too. He likes all of his property to be in good condition."

Tans was silent. He had been so relieved at getting away from the slave market that he had momentarily forgotten that his situation really hadn't changed that much. He grimaced and looked down.

"Here is the instrument Master Hutt Beldda wishes you to play." said Q-XP4, offering a polished wooden box to him while seemingly oblivious to his expression. "I trust you are capable of playing it?"
Tans opened the box and looked inside. As expected, it contained a slitherhorn. Unlike the functional instruments he was used to playing this one was highly polished and engraved with ornate patterns and swirls. Tans took the instrument and blew a few experimental notes then ran up and down a scale. He frowned. Apparently whoever had made this instrument had been more interested in its appearance than in its sound. He suspected that he could alter it a bit to improve its tone but wasn't sure what Beldda would think of his slicing his slitherhorn.

"Yeah." he said, looking up at the droid and the two Twi'leks. "I can play this."
"Wizard!" shouted Veena. "Let's get ready to dance!"

...

Somehow, Tans managed to make it through the evening's performance. He tried to lose himself in his playing; to become one with the music so that it flowed out of him without effort or thought. In this he succeeded, though perhaps too well. Every now and then he would play a familiar passage and turn to the side expecting to see Khyla dancing there, only to see Tyanna or Veena instead. Sometimes he would almost stumble in his playing when this happened but instinct and training always allowed him to continue.

To distract his thoughts when this happened, he would survey the cantina. The room was crowded, mostly with humans but with a dozen other species as well. Beldda himself sat on a raised dais at one end of the room, flanked by two of his Gamorreans. Tans noticed that occasionally one of the cantina patrons would go to Beldda and they would carry on a low conversation. Every now and then the patron would go with one of the Gamorreans into the back room from which they would return a few minutes later. Usually the patron would leave immediately afterwards. Tans assumed that the cantina was only a front for Beldda's real business which was conducted in the back. Knowing Hutts, he wasn't sure he wanted to know what that business really was.

The performance continued well into the early hours of the morning. When it ended, Tyanna and Veena moved into the crowd to mingle with the other customers. Tans would have liked to remain out front for a while as well but he was prompted to leave by one of the Gamorreans and decided not to press the issue. He had not had much sleep over the last few weeks, so he crawled into his bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

...

Tans was back in his home on Rodia and Drebor was dragging a screaming Khesta away from him. Tans attempted to run after him but Drebor's hunters kept shooting at him, shooting his arms and legs off. Tans tried to keep following by hopping with his body but then the hunters shot his head off. His head continued to bounce up and down, screaming helplessly after them.

"Wake up, you pile of dren! Wake up!"
Tans snapped awake. Tyanna was standing over him and roughly shaking his shoulder, an angry expression on her face.
"What the frell do you think you're doing?" she asked, standing up and glaring at him. "Trying to wake up the entire planet?"

"Sorry." he said, shaking his head to clear it. "It was just a bad dream. A nightmare."
She shook her head. "It'll be more than just a bad dream if you wake up Beldda screaming like that. Or if you wake me up again for that matter!"
Tans held out his hands in a placating gesture. "Look, I'm sorry. I've just had a rough few weeks and..."
"Oh!" she snapped, cutting him off. "And you're the only one who's got problems? You've been here for one day, one day! And then you get to come back here and go to sleep after the last set. Veena and I still have 'private entertaining' to do. So, don't expect me to have much sympathy for your 'rough few weeks'. Come back in a few cycles and we'll talk!"

Anger flared briefly within him then as quickly subsided. "You're right." he said, turning away from her. "I'm sorry."
Her own anger faded a bit at his apology and she sighed. "Yeah." she said, rubbing the base of her lekku. "Me too. Hang on a microt..." She went to her dressing table and rummaged around a bit then returned and tossed him a small packet. "Here. This should help."
He looked at the packet dubiously. "What is it?"
"It's spice. A sedative. H4b they call it."

Tans looked up at her. "And this will help me sleep?" he asked.
She nodded then turned back towards her own bed. Tans continued to stare at the packet.
"Will it make me forget what happeneed?" he asked.
She stopped. "No." she said, her back still to him. "But, it makes remembering things not hurt so much."

He watched as she returned to her bed and seemingly went to sleep. He then opened the packet and withdrew the dispersion unit inside. He paused for a long time before holding it to the end of his snout and, hitting the activator, inhaling deeply.

...

To most people, being a successful Entertainer seems to only be a matter of skill. Learn the music, learn the instrument, learn a few dance steps and you are ready for the cantina or the theatre. But this isn't the case. If it were then Entertainers could have been replaced long ago by droids. They haven't.

A successful Entertainer would tell you that entertaining is not so much a matter of skill as it is of instinct. Musicians know that for a memorable performance they can't simply follow the music as written. They have to know when to make minor variations to the written notes or to add extra bits of melody in order to enhance the song they are playing.

The same holds true for dancers. They too cannot simply follow the steps of their dances exactly. It is the variation in their steps and in their movements that maximizes the impact of their performance.

It is when the Musician and the Dancer begin to work together that the performance goes from being "good" to "exceptional". The two groups learn to time their variations or flourishes together, each one anticipating and leading the other's performance. Good entertainers get to know each other and learn to read each other well. This is why many entertaining groups are so close; it is the fact that they know each other so well that makes them great entertainers.

As Entertainers, Tans, Tyanna and Veena were very, very good.

...

Tans picked up a small tool and opened his slitherhorn case. One of the valves had been sticking slightly and he wanted to adjust it before the evening's performance. Over the past half-cycle word of the trio had started to spread and Beldda's cantina had become more and more popular. The last few evenings had been standing room only and he wanted to make sure there would be no problems tonight.

"Hey, Tans! Watch this!" Veena spun about on one foot, arms sweeping up over her head, and spinning in a tight circle for several revolutions before stopping with arms outstretched. "Tyanna just taught me this one. What do you think?"
"Great!" he told her, clapping in polite applause. "I remember when Khyla first learned that move. She..." He stopped, eyes momentarily shut. Every time he thought he was starting to adjust something would happen that reminded him of his family and the familiar pain would return.

"Sorry." he heard Veena say, contritely. "I didn't mean to..."
"It's OK!" he said, opening his eyes and looking at her. "Really. I'm fine." Both Veena and Tyanna had heard his story, probably more times than they had wanted to, and both were appropriately sympathetic. But he knew that they were both probably tired of his constant depression and self-pity and so he was trying to keep his emotions more under control. He forced himself to smile for Veena.
"That looked really good. Are you going to try it tonight?"
"Yep!" she said, proudly. "And you better be ready for it!"

Q-XP4 entered the room carrying a platter. "Master Hutt Beldda sends word that he is very pleased with your performance of late. There has been a substantial increase in business over the last several months and he attributes this increase directly to your own efforts."
"Our thanks to our Hutt and master for recognizing that." said Tyanna sarcastically, standing up from her dressing table. "I don't suppose we're getting any further compensation than that for our efforts though, are we?"

Q-XP4 somehow looked embarrassed. "Actually, no. Master Hutt Beldda did not authorize any compensation to you. However, he did not state that you should receive nothing either. Therefore, I took the liberty of procuring this for you from the kitchen droids." The droid sat the platter on the table and removed the cover.
"Sweetberry bread!" exclaimed Veena. "Thanks XP4!" She immediately broke off a large piece. Q-XP4 occasionally brought such unexpected gifts to the performers and had learned of Veena's fondness for the delicacy.
"I apologize that I am unable to provide more than this for you." said the droid.
Tans placed a hand on its shoulder. "You do more than enough for us XP4."
Q-XP4 turned to him. "Thank you for your comments sir. While I am programmed to accept it for myself I know that enforced servitude of the type you are currently enduring is not pleasing to your species. However, I hope I have in some small way been able to improve the conditions of your existence somewhat."
Tans laughed. "Thank you, sir droid." he said with a slight bow. Q-XP4 managed to look pleased.

The Gamorrean guard opened the door and barked something at them.
"OK people." said Tans, picking up the slitherhorn. "It's showtime!"

...

As expected, the cantina was crowded. Tans was momentarily pleased by the applause and cheers that greeted them as they entered the stage even though he knew that most of it was directed towards the two dancers. Still, he felt a slight thrill as he took up his horn and launched into the first number.

"Good crowd tonight." he thought, looking around. Most of the cantina was on its feet already, clapping, stomping and cheering along with the music. He launched into his first flourish and watched Veena perfectly execute the spin she had shown him earlier. "Yep." he thought, "It's going to be a good night."
Then, he noticed the table near the edge of the stage. Two humans and a Zabrak sat quietly at it, silently watching the performers and apparently ignoring the boisterous crowd around them. Something about them caused Tans' frills to stand up slightly.
"Or," he thought. "Maybe not.

The incident occurred in the third set. Veena was in the midst of another spin when one of the humans suddenly grabbed her arm and pulled her into his lap. Veena shrieked and Tans and Tyanna immediately broke off their own performances. A hubbub ran through the crowd as Veena jumped back to her feet, her arm still held by the human.

"Hey, what's the matter?" said the human.
"Yeah." said the other. "We won't hurt you."
"At least, nowhere anyone will notice anyway." added the first.

Beldda barked something and the room fell silent. Q-XP4 made its way through the crowd to the stage.
"Master Hutt Beldda demands that you release the dancer." it said as it arrived. "He also further demands that you leave the premises immediately upon doing so."

"Is that so?" asked the first human. "How about you tell mister Hutt that we want to buy some time with his dancer here. How about that? Just the two of us." He gestured with his free hand towards the Zabrak. "He just likes to watch." Veena looked frightened and all turned to look at the Hutt.

Beldda spoke again. Q-XP4 waited until he was finished then addressed the trio again.
"Master Hutt Beldda states that while he would usually be in favor of accepting such a business transaction, he feels that in this case it would not be in the ultimate best interest of this establishment for him to do so. Therefore, he repeats his demand that you release the dancer and leave the premises. He additionally states that he will not repeat this demand a third time."

The human released Veena's hand and she turned back to the stage. As she did, the human grabbed and jerked one of her lekku. With a shriek, Veena spun and slapped the human hard. Enraged, he leapt up from his seat and made as if to backhand her in return.

Tans launched himself from where he was standing and slammed into the human, both of them falling to the floor. He rolled over in time to see the Zabrak leaping over the table, a vibroblade in his hand. Tans raised his slitherhorn and barely managed to deflect the attack as the Zabrak brought the blade down towards him. The Zabrak spun for another attack as Tans scrambled to his feet.

Before he could continue, the Zabrak was grabbed from behind by a pair of the Gamorreans. A third dragged the human from the floor while glaring menacingly at his partner still sitting at the table. Tans managed to regain his feet, slitherhorn still held in front of him as a weapon.

Beldda barked another command and the guards began walking the Zabrak towards the entrance, the third guard pulling the two humans.
"This isn't over, Hutt!" shouted the Zabrak as the Gamorreans propelled him forcefully out the door. The two humans followed, accompanied by a scattering of laughter from the other patrons.

Tans lowered the slitherhorn and turned to Veena. "Are you all right?"
She nodded, still a bit shaken. "Yeah. I'm fine." She gave him a small smile. "Thanks."
"That was stupid." said Tyanna, looking at Tans as she moved to check on Veena. "The guards were on their way and would have been there in another microt. That Zabrak could have killed you!"
"Yeah." said Tans, shaking his head. "But... I really didn't think about it. I just knew I couldn't just stand there and watch."
"Well, I'm glad he stepped in!" said Veena, brushing a concerned Tyanna aside and walking over to Tans. "Thanks." she said, hugging him.

Further conversation was interrupted by a throat-clearing noise from Q-XP4. Beldda had been talking and the droid wanted to tell them what was being said. "Master Hutt Beldda wishes to know if you will be able to continue with your performances. He feels that it would be in the best interest of all parties if you do so."
Tans looked at Veena, who nodded. Tyanna simply gave a slight, helpless shrug.
"Tell him we'll take a short break and then start the next set." The droid indicated understanding and left to relay the information to Beldda. Tyanna went back to checking a protesting Veena for injuries while Tans turned to stare at the front door.
"I've got a bad feeling about this." he thought.

Chapter 4: Emancipation
(Dylol, Jandar system)

Tans woke in the middle of the night, his stomach churning. Glancing around, he noted that both Tyanna and Veena were in their beds, apparently sleeping. As quietly as he could he grabbed a handful of spice packets from beneath his bed and slipped into the fresher cubicle.

He had barely slid the door shut behind him when his stomach finally rebelled completely and he puked messily into the basin. When the last of the shudders had passed he hit the disposal lever and cleaned himself up as best he could.

At first only one packet of H4b had been enough to get him though the night. Then it had taken two. Lately even that had been proving inadequate and after the confrontation in the cantina that evening he had used three. Even that had not been enough though it had been more than his body could handle.

Still shaking, he sighed. "I just need some more sleep." he thought. Picking up one of the packets he pulled out the dispersion unit and inhaled the first dose.

There was a light tapping at the door. "Tans?" he heard Tyanna ask, quietly. "Are you in there?"

"Yeah." he said in a hoarse whisper. "Yeah. Just a minute." He turned the water on again in the basin and hastily opened the second packet. Unfortunately, his shaking hands couldn't keep their grip on the unit and it fell, bouncing off the counter and across the floor. Dropping to his knees he began searching for it.

"Tans? Are you all right?" he heard again. "Tans, what's..." Tyanna opened the door and stepped in, just as he found and grabbed the unit. She stopped and looked around, noting the evidence of his earlier distress in the basin, the used disperser on the counter, the unused packet nearby and Tans, looking embarrassed, on the floor. She paused, then quietly closed the door behind her and leaned against it. Tans stood up, brushing himself off.

"How many of those are you using?" she asked.
Tans shrugged. "Two. Usually."
Tyanna looked at him. "And tonight?"
Tans looked around helplessly. "Four." He said finally, rubbing his eyes and the base of his antenna.

"Four!" Tyanna gave him a concerned look. "That can't be good for you."
"Probably not." he agreed. "But it's the only way I can sleep."
"Nightmares still?"
"Sometimes." he said. "Other times I just lie there and keep thinking about that night, over and over again."
She shook her head. "Why? Why keep doing that to yourself?"

Tans looked away. "Because I keep thinking there was something I could have done differently to save them. If I had gotten them to come to the main room instead of staying in Khesta's, if I had fired a few shots through the front door before I turned, if I had spun the other way when I turned on Drebor..." He sighed. "I just feel that I let them down."

Tyanna placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. "You did what you thought you had to do to protect them. Beating yourself up because you tried can't help you or them."
Tans snorted. "Tried and failed..."
"You're alive. You have to believe that they are alive too. That's something." Tans continued to look away, not responding.

Tyanna leaned back against the door. "Is that why you jumped in front of Veena tonight?"
Tans nodded slowly. "It reminded me too much of what had happened." he said finally. "I just couldn't stand there and watch it happen again." He finally looked up at her, holding up the spice inhaler. "That's why I was using this."
"Because tonight brought back too many bad memories?"
He nodded.

She sighed. "You know, most the the men I'm with have wives or girlfriends or whatever, and most of them don't seem to want to remember them any more than they have to." She paused before adding, almost as an afterthought "I know I wish I could forget mine."

Tans looked up at her curiously. "I never knew you were married."
She let out a short, bitter laugh. "What? You think I decided to become a companion because I wanted to?"
"Well..." said Tans, suddenly embarrassed. "I never thought about it, really."
She laughed again, then a distant expression came over her face.

"We were happy, at first." she said finally. "Then, somehow, he got involved in gambling. He had always had a passing interest but for some reason it started to consume him. Sabbac, panzak, swoop racing... anything. He lost all of our credits and couldn't stop." She shrugged. "I started dancing in order to help ends meet. Then, when that wasn't enough, I started doing... other things."
"How did you wind up here?" Tans asked, quietly.
She paused a moment, looking into nothingness. "One day I came home and he was gone. He just wasn't there. For a while I thought he would come back but then I discovered that he had taken all of our credits with him. When the bills came due and I couldn't pay, they arrested me. Beldda bought me out of debt prison and here I am."

Tans was silent. Tyanna seemed lost in thought but eventually started speaking again. "It's strange, thinking of my life then and now. It changed so slowly, a bit at a time, that I really didn't notice what was happening. Then one day I woke up and asked 'How did I wind up here?'"

Tans nodded slowly then looked back down at the spice in his hand.
"You still planning on using that?" Tyanna asked.
He shook his head. "No. I think I'll be OK for now." He placed the dispersion unit back on the counter and looked up at her. "It helps to know that someone else understands. Thank you."
She smiled and nodded. "Thank you for listening to me too."
Tans smiled back. "What else are friends for?"
"Exactly." she said.

...

The evening had gone well. The cantina was almost empty now, though earlier there had barely been enough room for anyone to move around. Beldda was talking to one of the few remaining patrons while Veena and Tyanna were flirting with a few others. Tans had just finished packing away his slitherhorn and was wondering if he could sneak a Jawa Beer from the bar when there was a sudden commotion at the door. Someone was attempting to enter and the Gamorrean at the door was attempting to prevent them from doing so.

The guard suddenly stopped his arguments and backed slowly into the room. Tans looked up in surprise then discovered the reason for the Gamorrean sudden acquiescence. An Imperial officer strode into the room, followed closely by four stormtroopers. All conversation in the room ceased and Tans tried to make himself look as inconspicuous as possible.

"Citizen Beldda!" said the officer, striding to within a few meters of the Hutt, "You are charged with the crimes of smuggling, spice distribution, unlicensed gambling and illegal loan operations. You are hereby bound by law and will be transported to the nearest detention facility in order to stand trial."

There were several long seconds of silence then Beldda spoke. An uncomfortable looking Q-XP4 looked at him then turned to address the Imperial officer.
"Master Hutt Beldda states that he has no idea what you are talking about and asks why you are harassing an honorable and honest citizen as himself. He further requests that you leave these premises at once and do not return unless you have some evidence to support your fanciful claims."

The officer appeared unperturbed. "We have eyewitness accounts and sworn statements from multiple individuals all of which support the charges against you. I repeat; you are hereby bound by law and will be transported to the nearest detention facility. Any further resistance by you will be considered direct disobedience of an Imperial representative and will be treated accordingly."

Beldda seemed to ignore the officer and barked an order. His bearers appeared and began to lift his platform. At the same time the Gamorrean guards drew weapons of their own and faced the Imperial squad. As the bearers began to carry him towards the rear of the cantina, he spoke again. Q-XP4, with obvious hesitation, translated.
"Master Hutt Beldda states that he will speak of this incident with your superiors and that, if you value your career, you will leave these premises immediately. He considers this discussion at an end."

The Imperial officer frowned. "Citizen Beldda! If you do not accompany us at once, you will be considered a fleeing fugitive and treated as such!" Beldda did not respond.

After a moment's pause, the officer turned to the squad and nodded. In response, the stormtroopers raised their weapons and fired. The Gamorreans immediately fired as well and blaster bolts flew through the cantina. The remaining patrons fled for the entrance while Tans, Veena and Tyanna threw themselves to the floor.

The first blast from the stormtroopers had hit one of Beldda's bearers. The bearer screamed and fell, dropping his corner of the platform. The other bearer on that side could not handle the sudden increase in weight and he too lost his grip on the platform. The platform tipped over and, with a hoarse cry, Beldda fell to the ground, crushing one of his own bearers beneath him. The fire from the Gamorreans felled the officer and one of the stormtroopers but they in turn were cut down by return fire. A second squad of stormtroopers burst through the entrance and the firefight was over as quickly as it had begun.

Beldda was struggling to crawl towards the rear of the cantina when a stormtrooper approached him. Without a word, the trooper raised his blaster and fired directly into Beldda's head. Beldda froze, an expression of surprise on his face, then his eyes glazed over and he slumped to the floor.

...

Tans, Tyanna and Veena had been herded onto the stage and told to stay there. For what seemed like hours, stormtroopers and other Imperials had come and gone into the back rooms, taking various files and items with them. Several workers had been escorted out of the back as well and all had been taken away.

Finally, seemingly satisfied, most of the Imperials had left. One squad of stormtroopers remained and one of them finally approached the three entertainers.
"All right." the stormtrooper asked with his electronic, amplified voice. "What was your position here?"
Tans, mouth dry, glanced at the other two then back at the stormtrooper. "We were, ah, we were the band."
"Nothing else?" asked the stormtrooper.
Tans looked at the two dancers then back again. "Well... Maybe some other... entertainment."
"All right." said the stormtrooper, turning away. "That's all then. Move along."
Tans was startled. "What?"
"Move along." the stormtrooper repeated. Then, to his own squad. "OK, let's get out of here." The stormtoopers left, leaving the three standing stunned on the stage.

"That was weird." said Tans.
"Yeah." said Veena, looking around. "Why didn't they arrest us?"
Tyanna shook her head. "I don't know. Something doesn't make sense here. But I think we better get out of here and lay low for a while."

Tans nodded and, motioning to Veena, ducked through the door and up the stairs to their room. He returned a few minutes later, his few meager belongings stuffed into a small pack slung over his shoulder. Almost as an afterthought, he picked up the slitherhorn from the stage and stuck it into his belt.

Veena followed him into the main room. She had also packed her belongings but her pack was much larger than Tans', filled as it was with most of her dance outfits. She was dragging it more than she was carrying it and Tans, rolling his eyes, took it from her and shouldered it beside his own pack. She thanked him with a small smile.

"We need to get out of here." said Tyanna, emerging from behind the bar. "As soon as word gets out about what happened this place will be looter central." She came up to Tans and shoved a handful of credits at him. "Good thing we got here first."

Tans took the offered credits with a slight grin. "Any ideas where we can go?"
Tyanna nodded. "I know several people around here from before Beldda bought my contract. I'm sure at least one of them will put us up for a while."

He nodded. "Sounds good. Let's go." The three of them started walking towards the door. As he reached it, Tans took one final look around the cantina, noticing for the first time that Q-XP4 was still standing next to Beldda's body. Motioning for the others to wait, Tans walked over to it.

"You coming?"
"I cannot, sir." said Q-XP4, still looking down at Beldda. "I'm afraid that I cannot depart from Master Hutt Beldda without explicit instructions from him or persons designated by him. Unfortunately, I also have instructions from him that none of you are such a person."

Tans looked at the droid for a moment then walked to the bar. He rummaged behind it for a few seconds then returned carrying a small tool. Before the startled droid could react, he popped its restraining bolt free and tossed it to one side.
"See you outside." said Tans. He returned to the door, smiling at the thought that he had never seen Q-XP4 at a loss for words before. Q-XP4 continued to stand where it was, looking first at the bolt then back to Tans as he rejoined the two Twi'leks and left the cantina.

Outside, Tans looked about; blinking at his first sight of the outside world in over half a cycle. Tyanna glanced about as well then, motioning for the others to follow, led them down the ramp and into a narrow alley between two of the enormous trunks.

They had barely taken ten steps into the alley when two humans stepped out of the shadows, blocking their path. Tans took one step back then stopped as he heard the unmistakable whine of a vibroblade coming up to speed behind him.

"Well." said the Zabrak, walking around to stand in front of the three, "I knew you three would be along eventually." He smiled uncomfortably. "Actually, you're here a bit sooner than I expected. No matter though."

Tans narrowed his eyes. "You called the Imperials in, didn't you?"
The Zabrak laughed. "I told that idiot slug that he should have let us have our fun. Yes, the Empire was very happy for the information we gave them. In fact, they even offered us a reward. I told them that all the reward we needed was for them to let our three, dear friends go free when they were done. And, here we are."

One of the humans had drawn a blaster and had aimed it at the party. "What about this one? I owe him a few for that hit he gave me the other night."
"Patience!" said the Zabrak, looking Tans over. "He seems to have feelings for his two dancing companions here. We'll let him watch until we're done with them. Then, you can have all the fun you want with him."

Tans felt his frills stand on end. The Zabrak nodded to the second human, who grabbed Veena. She screamed but the human slapped her hard. Tans took a step forward and suddenly found himself staring into the barrel of the blaster. Veena screamed again as the human started dragging her down the alley. The Zabrak gave them a disturbing grin, then moved off after them.

Tans clenched his fist. "I can't let this happen again!" he said, visibly wincing at each scream from Veena.
"Don't do anything stupid!" hissed Tyanna, though she herself had turned pale.
"Listen to your friend, Rodi." laughed the human. "I'm looking forward to using this on you as it is."
Another scream caused Tans to tense further. "I can't let it..." he whispered.

"Excuse me, sir." came a voice from the mouth of the alley. "But I was wondering if... oh!" Q-XP4 rounded the corner into the alley then stopped abruptly at the sight of Tans and Tyanna standing at blasterpoint before the human. The human's blaster never wavered but he glanced for a fraction of a second towards the droid to see who the new intruder was.

Now, Rodians are not the strongest species in the galaxy, nor are they the most intelligent. However, what they lack in muscle or brains they more than make up for in speed. The fraction of a second was all Tans needed.

Tans' hand was a blur as it dropped to his belt. Grabbing the slitherhorn, he swung it sharply across the human's hand, sending the blaster flying. The startled human took a step back and Tans brought the instrument down hard across his head, bending the metal tube and staggering his opponent.

Tyanna slammed her shoulder into the stunned human, knocking him to the ground where his head hit the pavement with a satisfying crack. Tans dove towards the blaster and, rolling to his feet, came up holding it with both hands and firing several unaimed shots down the alley. Veena had been forced to the ground and the other human was crouching over her, the Zabrak standing nearby. All looked up in surprise as the bolts of energy flashed by.

One burst grazed the human, tumbling him to the pavement. He quickly regained his feet and, after a startled glance at the enraged Rodian, turned and fled down the alley. The Zabrak stood impassive, ignoring the blaster fire around him. Pulling the vibroblade from his belt, he started slowly walking down the alley towards Tans.

Someone was screaming nearby but Tans ignored them and, shifting his grip on the pistol, started firing again. He was rewarded by seeing several blasts strike home but they seemed to do nothing but anger the Zabrak further. He broke into a run towards Tans, vibroblade held up and ready to strike.

Tans continued to fire, striking the Zabrak again and again seemingly to no effect. The Zabrak continued to approach until, as he closed to within a few meters of Tans, he slowed to a halt. He stood for a moment, swaying, then the vibroblade fell from his hand. Seconds later, he himself toppled over backwards. Heedless, Tans continued to fire blast after blast into the unmoving body.

"Tans. Tans! Tans! " Tyanna was next to him, shaking him, but he could barely hear her over the continued screaming, which he suddenly recognized as his own voice. The overheat warning on the blaster was beeping but his finger was continuing to ineffectually pull the trigger.

Abandoning shaking, Tyanna slapped Tans hard across the face. The screaming stopped and he lowered the pistol to his side.
"I won't let it happen again!" he told her in a tight, anguished voice. "I won't let it!"
"You didn't!" she said, placing her palms on either side of his head and turning it to face her. "You didn't."
Tans looked around. Veena was watching him from nearby, clutching her torn clothing to herself but with concern plainly etched on her face; an emotion echoed by Tyanna's as well. Even Q-XP4, standing nearby, somehow managed to convey a sense of worry. One human lay on the ground nearby, blood pooling beneath its head; the other was nowhere to be seen. The Zabrak was a barely recognizable corpse.

Tans looked back at Tyanna. His mouth moved wordlessly then he collapsed against her shoulder. She held him, whispering quiet words of comfort, as his body shook with uncontrolled emotion and relief.

...

Tans stood near the entrance to the starport, the small pack hanging over his shoulder. Tyanna and Veena stood nearby, trying to look happy and failing miserably. Q-XP4 looked on from a few meters away.

"Are you sure both of you will be all right?" asked Tans, looking from one to the other.
Tyanna nodded. "I'm sure. We've found a legit cantina that is looking for dancers and it looks like we'll even be able to keep all of our own tips!" She laughed. "We may even be able to stick to dancing."
"You do that." said Tans, echoing her grin. He turned to Veena. "How about you?"
Veena shook her head. "We'll be fine. But... I wish you would stay." She suddenly looked embarrassed. "It's going to be hard having to break in another musician." she said, an unconvincing excuse.
"I have to go."
"I know." she said, sadly. "But I wish you didn't."

Tans smiled and, hugging her gently, kissed the top of her head. She smiled at the gesture then stepped back as he turned towards Tyanna.
"And how about you?" she asked him. "Are you going to be all right?"
Tans nodded slowly. "Yeah." he said. "I think I am. Now."
She smiled then walked to stand in front of him. "I wish you could stay too," she said in a low voice, "and not just for your slitherhorn skill." She laughed, then continued more seriously. "But I understand."
"I know." he told her. "And part of me wishes I could as well. But..." he shrugged helplessly.

"Where will you go?" she asked. "Back to Rodia?"
"I can't." he said, shaking his head. "We... They are pretty serious about exile back home. The scanners would pick me up as soon as I stepped off the ship. I'd never make it out of the starport. No, I think I'll start by checking the worlds on the major hyperspace routes leaving Rodia and see if I can learn what ships were in port that night. Then, I'll just have to find them."
"That's not much to go on."
"It's all I've got."

Tyanna reached out to him and they embraced, holding each other for several seconds. Then they separated and she moved to stand beside Veena.
"No matter what happens," she told him "you'll always have a place here."
"I know." he said. "And I'll be back someday, no matter what I find."
"Good luck." she said, then added "May the Force be with you."

Tans smiled at the old Jedi words of encouragement and raised his hand in a final wave goodbye. The two Twi'leks waved back then turned and slowly made their way towards their new home. Tans watched until they were out of sight then lowered his hand; the smile fading from his face. Resettling the pack on his shoulder, he walked towards the starport entrance. Q-XP4 fell into step beside him.

"Where do you think you're going?" Tans asked, stopping and turning to face the droid.
"With you, sir." said Q-XP4. "I am certain that my services will be invaluable in your search. Additionally, I feel it is only fair that I provide some compensation for the suffering you have endured. Though my status was only that of spokesdroid and interpreter for Master Hutt Beldda, I cannot help but feel some measure of responsibility for..."

Tans interrupted it. "XP4, you have done enough. You don't have to come with me."
"I know, sir." said the droid. "I do not have to come with you. Like you, I am now free to choose my own course of action. Therefore, I choose to come with you."
Tans shook his head. "So... I guess there's no point in telling you not to come?"
Q-XP4 looked at him in a way that somehow expressed smug annoyance. "None at all, sir. Now, if I may suggest, we should proceed as rapidly as possible into the starport. The Star of Coruscant is leaving for Alderaan in approximately 5 minutes and 38 seconds and it would be most advantageous to us if we were to be aboard it at that time."

Shaking his head in resignation, Tans resumed his walk towards the entrance. Q-XP4 began listing various details about the ship but Tans ignored it. Instead he looked upward.
"Khyla... Khesta..." he said silently, directing his thoughts to the unseen stars overhead. "Hang on. I'm coming."



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